Jazz artist Youn Sun Nah talks about her career, her influences and the past, and openly shares her love of jazz.
Youn Sun Nah is a Korean jazz artist, who is enjoying a very successful career in Europe and Korea. Throughout May she was touring Europe with Swedish jazz guitarist Ulf Wakenius, and on the 7th she sat down with KoME at the Jazzclub Unterfahrt, Munich, a few hours before her live.
Youn Sun Nah sat down with KoME on May 7th, a few hours before her Munich live was scheduled to begin.
Can you introduce yourself and your music to our readers?
Youn Sun Nah: I'm a Korean Jazz Vocalist, my name is Youn Sun Nah. I started studying music really late, when I was 26 and I went to France to study jazz. I studied French Literature at a university first, and afterwards I had the chance to participate in a comedy musical in Korea. After that, I wanted to sing, so I decided to move to France to study both jazz and French chanson. After some time I formed a group called Youn Sun Nah Quintett with some French guys and we played in a lot of festivals in France and won some prizes. We first tried to make our own music, and it sometimes sounded like rock, pop... something experimental. We played together for around 10 years and later on I wanted to do something different, so I went back to Korea and played there with some jazz musicians and also recorded a pop album. Three years ago I met Ulf Wakenius and we decided to play together.
In 1995 you decided to go to Paris. In an older interview you talked about it as being "par hasard" (by accident), but no-one just goes to another country by accident. What was the main reason for you to leave Korea?
Youn Soun Nah: When I was in high school I had a very good teacher who taught French and she really loved French chanson. So she gave us the chance to listen to some French chanson and I immediately fell in love with it. I always thought about that. Maybe that's why I decided to study French Literature. Also one of my musician friends kept encouraging me to go to France, because he told me one of the premier jazz schools was there.
Where did you find the strength to go to France? Not many people would take that step. Was it easy for you or where there times you thought it was hard?
Youn Sun Nah: I don't know. I never imagined I would be a professional singer. I just wanted to study. I thought I'd sing for three years and then come back to Korea and teach or something. So it was really by accident that I stayed.
You started with musicals and then changed to jazz. Why exactly did you prefer jazz over musicals and what makes jazz so special to you? Does it give you something other musical styles can't?
Youn Sun Nah: To do musicals you need special training, it's a complex thing. I wasn't good at dance or theater. I think jazz has a lot of freedom. Even though you come... I don't know... from the end of the world, you can do jazz. There is no frontier in jazz music.
A lot of Latin American, Buena Vista Social Club like influences are distinct in your sound. How did you come across those different styles and what is it you like about them that makes you use them so often?
Yun Sun Nah: Wow, you think so? I never thought about it, but I like this kind of music. Maybe unconsciously I mixed it. It's music that touches me a lot. I think Korean people are the most Latin people in Asia. Maybe I found something in common.
What kind of jazz do other Korean singers make? Do they mix styles like you do or do they have very different styles?
Youn Sun Nah: Most of the jazz singers play a very standard jazz, it's quite American. A lot of young musicians study abroad, especially in America, so I think they are influenced by American jazz. Most of the singers don't make their own thing. Jazz is rapidly rising in Korea, but we don't have enough information there. So we had to imitate. I was very lucky to go to Europe.
You said in an interview for another publication that you wanted to have a low, husky voice like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald. Your professor told you that you should just sing with your own voice. How do you feel about your voice now? Do you still wish it was that low, husky style or do you feel now that your voice if exactly what it needs to be, for you?
Youn Sun Nah: No no no it's uuuugh (laughs and shakes head). I think I will never have this kind of voice, maybe when I'm 70 if I drink and smoke a lot. But I think I have to be me and try to do what I can with my voice.
Your pop album was successful in Korea. Do you wish your jazz albums had had that kind success over there as well, or do you feel the difference in acceptance and success in Europe and Korea is okay?
Youn Sun Nah: Jazz in Korea, even though we have a great jazz festival, it still stays underground. I cannot say I'm sad. In other countries you have a radio channel on which you can listen to jazz every day, in Korea we have just one hour per week, so you don't have many chances to listen to jazz.
What made you record a pop album in the first place?
Youn Sun Nah: I wanted to come back to Korea and I wanted to work with Korean pop composers and make music "played by european jazz musicians", so I talked with my manager and discussed it . He said "Why not" so I called Nils Lan Doky, the Danish jazz pianist who lives in Paris, because I liked his music. He accepted and I sent him the songs so he would know if he would be interested. And he was totally surprised by the Korean compositions. He didn't know how it would sound, but it was a great composition.
Your latest jazz album is titled Voyage. What is the significance behind the title? What does it mean to you personally?
Youn Sun Nah: Since 1995, the first time I came to europe, I think I'm always on the road. For a Korean jazz singer it's not very normal to live a nomadic life. I don't know when it'll stop and when it will be that I'm satisfied with this voyage. You don't know who you'll run into and play with, so jazz is kinda like a voyage.
You said you always knew you'd sing Jockey Full of Bourbon one day and finally did so on this album. Are there still some jazz classics you've always wanted to record but didn't dare until now?
Youn Sun Nah: Because I didn't know anything about Tom Waits before, when I listened to the song for the first time i thought "Is he sick? Des he have a problem?“ because his voice is weird. But it was very spiritual and I always wanted to sing it. I want to try many things, maybe one day even songs from Madonna.
What is your favourite song from Voyage and why?
Youn Sun Nah: Every song is special. They all have their own history so I can't say there is one song I especially like. It depends on my mood.
When you write your songs, do you get inspired by anything specific or do you just write?
Youn Sun Nah: No, it's life in general. I don't consider myself a composer, I'm a singer. I tried this time and I don't know if it's good or not. For me it's more a bit like homework, I felt like I have to do it.
So you don't have jam-sessions with other musicians where you suddenly think "Oh that sounds good! Let's use it!“, or you have a melody in mind and write it down?
Youn Sun Nah: Well, I work alone. But maybe I'll try, it sounds like a good idea.
If you could collaborate with any artist that ever lived/still lives, who would it be and why?
Youn Sun Nah: I don't know (thinks and laughs). There are so many I would like to, I can't mention just one. Yeah... Sting? I mean I play with Ulf Wakenius, so that's like a dream already.
Your current tour takes place from May until July and from October until November, and brings you to Germany, Korea, China, France and many more countries. Is it very stressful or do you enjoy traveling around and meeting the different audiences?
Youn Sun Nah: The time after the concerts is a time I can enjoy. But before the concerts there's so much stress. But yeah, I'm very lucky. For example in China I met Chinese jazz singers and they tell me they want a career like me. I went to Shanghai with my French musicians and you have to imagine an Asian girl with four French men (laughs). For her this was a dream and she told me she was proud to be an Asian. The contact with people is always touching and filled with emotion.
Have you ever experienced a difference between the audiences in those different countries? Is there a 'favourite' audience?
Youn Sun Nah: Mostly they're the same. But Korean audiences are the hottest audiences in the world.
Youn Sun Nah: You know, in jazz normally you sit calmly and listen. And Koreans shout during the concerts and sing along. There is a jazz festival in Korea and last year John Scofield and Joe Lovano performed there. Their music is not so easy, you can't sing along to it. But the fans were so crazy, they memorized all the melodies from their albums and sang with them on their guitar melodies. John Scofield and Joe Lovano couldn't believe it! Jazz is not pop but the fans sang along!
Is there a venue you're really looking forward to perform there or is there one place/country still missing you have always wished to go to?
Youn Sun Nah: I want to go to Brazil. I've never been there but maybe at the end of the year I will. I've been discussing it with an organizer in Brazil.
It's noticeable that almost half of your performances take place in Germany, is there any reason for that?
Youn Sun Nah: As my album just got released by a German label, they want me to play as many times as possible. So they're arranging many concerts. I'm so excited, because I played so often in France and even though it's so close it's different. And my French jazz friends envy me.
Do you like Germany?
Youn Sun Nah: Yes, I like it! Especially the language.
You've been on stage many times by now - how do you feel about performing? Does it feel different to perform now than it used to when you first began?
Youn Sun Nah: It's always exciting and very scary (laughs). I can't stay calm, it'll never be routine. I'd like to be cool and calm but I'm nervous.
Is there a performance of yours that stands out in your mind amongst others?
Youn Sun Nah: Yes, when I got the Grand Prix at a French jazz festival. It was something unimaginable to play on such a big stage. There was a contest and I applied, so I could play there where legendary jazz musicians like Ray Charles played. It was something very emotional.
On your days off between performances, what do you like to do?
Youn Sun Nah: I'm not very fond of shopping. I stay at the hotel. I don't have much time for myself. For example I took the plane at 8am and arrived in Germany around 2:30pm. I had to prepare some stuff, check my emails... I'm always in a hurry so theres no time to to enjoy myself before the concert.
A lot of your time is spent in Paris, what especially do you like about the city? Is there something in Korea that you wish was like it is in France (and vice versa)? Or do you like the differences between the two countries, and the variety you get while traveling back and forth?
Youn Sun Nah: In Paris there is everything. If you want to listen to music, if you want to watch some event, it's possible. So many things happen there every day. Culturally it's very rich. That's something I want to take to Korea. I think Korea has a lot of things, but it still stays an industrial country. It's slowly changing but I think it will take time until it's like European countries.
Our website KoME concentrates on bringing Korean music to a bigger European audience no matter which genre. You have managed to be successfull in your homecountry Korea but also in Europe and around the world. Do you think more Korean artists can and should try as well?
Youn Sun Nah: I hope so, but I think it's not very easy for us to enter this circle. It's a circle that is very established. For me it was hard, but I was lucky to meet the right person. I hope this luck could happen to everybody but I guess it's not very easy for a Korean. In classical music we have a very strong side but in other genres I think it will take some time.
Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions! Any last words to our readers?
Youn Sun Nah: You know it's my first concert every in Munich and I'm very excited. I hope it will be nice and I hope to come back soon again.
KoME would like to thank Youn Sun Nah and ACT Music for making this interview possible.